There’s not much of the original Abu Dhabi to be seen in the city; the original pre-20th century fishing village was probably little more than a collection of barasti huts, maybe with a few more substantial coral- and stone-based buildings for defence and storage. But in the boom of the 1960s and 70s the city developed rapidly around a prescriptive set of planning rules – a grid layout, tall blocks round the edges, maximum 13 storeys in the centre – and this generated some fascinating examples of functional modernism.
That modern heritage has long been recognised, an international style with some contemporary interpretations of Arab architectural tradition. Given the paucity of pre-1950s historical references, this is important to a perception of Abu Dhabi as a living, developing city (and incidentally it sets Abu Dhabi apart from Dubai, where so much of the urban development has been more recent and is so lacking in references to the past).
Now the capital’s modern heritage is being formalised with a DCT Abu Dhabi programme that lists and assigns plaques to specific examples. Announced last year as part of DCT Abu Dhabi’s mandate to safeguard the emirate’s urban heritage, this Modern Heritage Conservation Initiative seeks to identify “cultural [sic] significant examples of architecture and urbanism that narrate the significant historical, socio-cultural, and economic changes that took place in the Emirate since the distribution of wealth generated from the export of oil”.
There are a total of 64 sites in the initial list, and we understand more are to follow. A few are outside the capital, some in Al Ain and Liwa, but the majority are in Abu Dhabi. They include some of the most iconic of the city’s buildings, among them most of magpie’s favourites: the Bus Terminal and Taxi Stand, Sheikh Zayed Sports City (top), the Madinat Zayed market, the City Terminal and Al Bateen Mall (below), the Armed Forces Officers Club, several government buildings, and some of the original hotels – the Hilton on the Corniche (now a Radisson Blu), Intercontinental, Sheraton, Le Méridien …
There do seem to be at least a couple of significant omissions among residential blocks; not listed (yet?) are the Buty Al-Otaiba Tower and the Obeid Al-Mazru’i Building (aka the ‘Connect 4’). Criminally, the original circular, tiled (and virtually incomprehensible) airport terminal isn’t there. And of course it’s way too late for those groovy near-circular ADNOC residential blocks behind the Hilton …
The Modern Heritage Building Plaque programme “underscores the significance of these landmarks to the community and the shared responsibility in ensuring their preservation for future generations”, and it carries some teeth. The buildings get a degree of protection from redevelopment and qualify for “top priority for maintenance and rehabilitation, in line with the Cultural Heritage Law decreed in 2016”.
The full list is here, along with more information about the thinking behind the Modern Heritage Conservation Initiative. Incidentally, the best guide we’ve seen to the city’s modernist buildings is Pascal Menoret’s A Study of Modern Architecture in Abu Dhabi, 1968-1992. Sadly it was published ten years ago and now seems to be out of print; but if you can get hold of a copy, it is a great companion for walking round the city.